Years ago, in the hallways of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, I met a Swiss student from Neuchâtel. "Neuchâtel is a beautiful lakeside town with a lovely castle," he mentioned proudly, surprised I'd never heard of his home town.
Since then, I've visited this elegant town with a well-preserved medieval center, fancy gold-leaf fountains, a Gothic church and a charming lakeside promenade many times.
Neuchâtel, the capital of the French speaking canton of Neuchâtel, was founded over 1,000 years ago when the castle from which Neuchâtel gets its name (new castle) was completed in 1011. Today, this magnificent turreted castle hosts the municipal authorities and also allows visitors to tour. The hilly, slow-paced region is rich in traditions, festivals and celebrations. The population of 33,000 grows to over 300,000 every September during its annual three day long Fête des Vendanges — Grape Harvest Festival. The festivities signify the end of the wine harvest for the year.
"New wine is here. All last season bottles must be finished," explains one resident. During each festival, traffic is banished from the city center while adults and children flock to the streets dressed in traditional costumes. For three days and nights, Neuchâtel teems with music, dancing, lights, clinking wine glasses and laugher.
The festival originated more than a century ago. After long work days in the fields, local grape pickers spontaneously walked from cellar to cellar to cheer on wine makers. When the harvest was complete, the wine pickers and farmers noisily accompanied the remaining grape tanks, often decorated with flowers, to the press. The first organized procession took place in October 1900 bringing together comedy groups, equestrians and marching bands. Gradually the spontaneous celebrations became more planned and structured, each year attracting a greater numbers of spectators. In 1925, the Grape Harvest Festival name was adopted and a special flower parade was introduced.
The upcoming 90th Grape Harvest Festival will take place 22-24 September 2017. Festivities will include traditional processions with music, flowers and wine makers' tools, a children's fancy-dress parade, jazz concerts, dancing, fireworks and lots of good wine.
Eventually I married that Swiss friend I met in Boston. So if you need insider tips about Neuchâtel, get in touch and I'll ask my husband. And, mark your calendars for the last weekend of September.
Photos: © Fête des Vendanges de Neuchâtel